, COLOMBO, May 17 – Sri Lankan troops killed at least 70 Tamil Tiger rebels trying to escape across a shallow lagoon using boats, military spokesman Brigadier Udaya Nanayakkara said.
The guerrillas tried to break out of the pocket of land where they have been holed up in the northeast of the island, Nanayakkara said.
"Troops observed the six boats in the lagoon and destroyed them," he said. "We recovered 70 bodies and an identification process is underway."
He said he did not believe that the Tamil Tiger leader Velupillai Prabhakaran was among those in the boats.
Sri Lanka’s Tamil Tigers were facing total elimination, with the island’s president declaring them "defeated" and defence officials predicting a "mass suicide" of the rebel leadership.
The government said a massive offensive against the separatist guerrillas was all but complete, with the entire island under its control for the first time in years but for a minuscule pocket of jungle on the northeast coast.
Army commandos were reported to be closing in overnight, encountering dwindling pockets of die-hard fighters in a state of "total disarray".
"I am proud to announce… that my government, with the total commitment of our armed forces, has in an unprecedented humanitarian operation finally defeated the LTTE militarily," President Mahinda Rajapakse said in a speech in Jordan on Saturday.
The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam have been fighting for an independent homeland on the ethnic Sinhalese-majority Island since the 1970s.
Rajapakse said he would be returning Sunday to "a country that has been totally freed from the barbaric acts of the LTTE".
"Their only way out is to surrender to the security forces or to be crushed," the defence ministry said.
It said the remnants of the once formidable rebel force were now "preparing for a mass suicide after being effectively cut-off of escape routes, both land and sea" by a coastal pincer movement by the army.
Official sources said a formal announcement that all remaining Tiger territory has been captured could be made on Sunday — but cautioned that the army was still trying to make sure the area was clear of civilians.
Thousands of people are reported to have fled in recent days, but aid agencies say many thousands more may still be trapped. The LTTE has been widely accused of holding them as human shields.
The Sri Lankan government, in its moment of triumph, has also been under fire for alleged war crimes — including months of indiscriminate shelling that has left thousands dead and blocking access to aid agencies.
The International Committee of the Red Cross, the only neutral organisation working in the northeast, earlier in the week described the situation as "an unimaginable humanitarian catastrophe".
"Sri Lanka must understand that there will be consequences for its actions," British Prime Minister Gordon Brown said in a statement on Saturday.
"The humanitarian agencies must be granted access to civilians caught in the crossfire of a dreadful conflict. We are backing UN efforts to secure an orderly end to the conflict. The LTTE must lay down its arms and allow civilians to leave."
The UN’s human rights office has said an independent probe into possible war crimes in Sri Lanka was vital.
The Tigers controlled nearly a third of the island only two years ago, operating an effectively autonomous Tamil state.
Their defeat is unlikely to end Sri Lanka’s ethnic problem, with Tamil fighters vowing to return to the guerrilla hit-and-run tactics that they have used to devastating effect in the past.
"An onslaught by the government will only result in thousands more dying and will not pave a way for a dignified and respectful outcome," the LTTE’s head of international relations, Selvarasa Pathmanathan, was quoted as saying by the pro-rebel Tamilnet website.